Proper Attire as a Racial Issue in Children’s Literature

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What is proper attire? And who decides?

This week, photos emerged of French police in Nice surrounding a woman wearing a burkini, the full-body bathing suit designed for Muslim women to allow them to enjoy the summer and protect their modesty at the same time. The police made her remove part of her clothing due to a ban on the garment in certain municipalities (including Nice). While the French courts mull over the legality of the various bans, Twitter was a-tweet with criticism. One particular photo kept recurring, that of some nuns on the beach, fully habited, generally with a tag line of “Will the police make these women undress as well?”

 

The picture of the nuns was used to show the absurdity of the laws, but it also highlights something else: proper attire is and has been consistently an issue for BAME people for a long time. It is an issue of power—and white people generally have the power to make the rules about attire for everyone else. So, no, of course the French police will not make nuns remove their habits; they are only concerned with women who might be “liable to offend the religious convictions or (religious) non-convictions of other users of the beach,” according to the tribunal. Even well-intentioned bodies reveal the power hierarchy. It is great news that this week the Scottish and Canadian police “allowed” Muslim women to wear the hijab while in police uniform, but why should they have to “allow” it in the first place?

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It’s not a class issue–poor white women may feel bad about their clothes, but in the end they still get the one dress that matters.

 

Now, you might say that proper attire, especially in children’s literature, is about class more than race. Didn’t Meg March in Little Women feel embarrassed because she didn’t have the right clothes when visiting rich friend Sally Gardiner? And didn’t Anne Shirley come to Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert with only an ugly yellow wincey dress that was too short for her in Anne of Green Gables? Yes, of course. But Meg was lent appropriate dress to the occasion (and learned to disdain frippery at the same time, being a good girl), and Anne had clothes made for her. The clothing was a sign to the reader that people should not be judged by their outfits, but by their characters. As soon as the lesson is learned, clothing ceases to be an issue (neither Meg nor Anne ever have to defend any ragged children from people making fun of them); not that they don’t continue to want pretty things, but they end up getting all the pretty things that they truly need because they are loved and cherished as people.

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No white dress for Lorraine in Dhondy’s “Free Dinners” Cover image by Alun Hood.

 

Life doesn’t come up quite so rosy for some non-white characters in children’s books. Farrukh Dhondy, in 1978, wrote about Lorraine, a Black girl, and Pete, a white boy, both of whom receive “Free Dinners” because they are poor (you can find the story in Dhondy’s Come to Mecca). When the Bishop comes to school to give prizes, the deputy head tells the pupils how to dress. Girls have to wear “flesh-coloured tights” (67). It is at this point that dress becomes an issue, because Lorraine answers back, “Whose flesh, miss?” (67). The deputy head sends her out of the room; when Lorraine shows up in “black velvet hot-pants and a black silk shirt” (67-68), the deputy head tells her she can’t win a prize looking like that. Pete thinks she looks “tarty” but Lorraine’s response is revealing: “Lorraine said she’d wear what she liked out of school time because it was her culture” (68; emphasis mine). Pete admires her for this, and even tries to take her out once or twice, but reveals his casual racism to Lorraine and she blocks any further attempts to connect with Pete. But Lorraine has not learned the “proper” lesson about attire, and because she refuses to dress like white people, she ends up losing all her clothes—getting work as a topless dancer after school finishes, and later as a prostitute. Dhondy, as author, is not showing the error of Lorraine’s ways, but rather the way that society, in a Foucaultian sense, punishes those who refuse to conform. Lorraine was not allowed to dress as she felt appropriate to her culture; her clothing might have been deliberately provocative but it was also a statement about a political kind of Blackness that her teachers rejected. Dhondy’s story is important, because it came after years of comics and stories where Black characters (or caricatures) longed to (or sometimes actually did) wash themselves white. In the time that Dhondy was writing, some schools banned the Rastafarian colours of red, green and gold, and, as Sally Tomlinson points out, “schools worried over allowing pupils to wear dreadlocks” (Race and Education 49) in case it would lead to anti-authoritarian behavior.

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More recently, the issue of Muslim girls wearing the hijab has also been raised in children’s books. Randa Abdel-Fatteh’s Does My Head Look Big in This? is probably the most famous hijab story, possibly because of its humorous look at being female and Muslim. In some ways, though, Abdel-Fatteh’s story tries almost too hard to make wearing the hijab a positive experience (at least in the end); in her own life, as Geraldine Brooks of the New York Times points out, Abdel-Fatteh stopped wearing a hijab at 17, “anxious about prejudicing her job prospects” (http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=980CE4DA103AF935A2575AC0A9619C8B63&ref=bookreviews). Tariq Mehmood also wrote about the hijab in his Diverse Voices-award winning novel, You’re Not Proper. Mehmood, who was a member of the Bradford 12 in 1981, a group of Asian Britons who made petrol bombs to defend against racists and who were arrested for it, depicts in his novel what it means to choose to wear the hijab—as well as what it means to have it stripped from you.

 

I don’t know of any books written by Sikh authors about the wearing of the turban that are set in modern times (if you do, please comment). But Sikhs are frequently singled out, just as Muslims are, for wardrobe infringement, and in fact are often mistaken for Islamic “terrorists” because they are not white and wear “different” clothing. Children’s books are a major source of education for young people, and thus people involved with children’s books need to share those that educate (about cultures and religions) but also those that support young people and the choices they make about their dress. To do that, we need more books that describe what constitutes “proper” attire.

We Didn’t Ask for Tolerance: Acceptance versus Tolerance in Children’s Literature

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In Keeping’s book, neither of the children are “tolerated”.

This week, Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission released their report, Healing a Divided Britain: The need for a comprehensive race equality strategy. The report begins with pointing out that “inequalities of significant concern . . . mean that individuals are facing barriers in accessing jobs and services that impact on their ability to fulfil their potential, [and] they also indicate that some parts of our community are falling behind and can expect poorer life chances than their neighbours” (7). The report went on to say that “Britain is a very different place today compared to the 1960s, when casual racism and ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ signs were commonplace. Race equality legislation and changes in social attitudes have had an enormous impact. This is a cause for celebration. However, the evidence shows that, 50 years after the Race Relations Act 1965, stark inequalities remain” (7). Mishal Husain, introducing the report on the Today Show on Radio 4, commented that, “We may like to believe that we are a nation of tolerance and equality of opportunity, whatever our background, but are we instead a nation where racial inequality is entrenched and far-reaching?” (Today on Radio 4 18 August 2016). There is a lot that can be said about the report (and the reporting on the report), but I want to focus on Husain’s opening statement about tolerance. Upon hearing it, Dr. Nicola Rollock, the Deputy Director of the Centre for Research in Race and Education, tweeted, “Always baffled by statement that UK tolerant re race relations. Do we want ‘tolerance’ or understanding, acceptance & equity? #r4today” (@NicolaRollock 18 August 2016).

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But Keeping’s palette makes subtle comments about equity and gentrification in Britain.

It is interesting to look at the report and Rollock’s response (which was echoed by several who retweeted her) in the context of children’s literature from both the “dark ages” of the 1960s and 1970s and the present time. During the 1960s and 1970s, Black British youth demanded fair treatment from the police and Black parents demanded equitable treatment for their children in Britain’s schools. From the Black Parents Movement in the late 1960s to the Black People’s Day of Action that was a response to the New Cross Massacre of 1981, Black people in Britain were not requesting tolerance from their white counterparts. They were demanding to be heard, and claiming their rights as British citizens. Children’s books in the 1960s and 1970s did not ask for tolerance either, because tolerance suggests a hierarchical relationship (as does asking for society to listen and respond). In fact, children’s books such as the Kate Greenaway award-winning book Charley, Charlotte and the Golden Canary (1967) by the fabulous Charles Keeping subtly suggests society’s inequities while at the same time promoting a cross-racial friendship that is not questioned or highlighted as something unusual or different. Charley and Charlotte live in the ironically named “Paradise Street, somewhere in the big city of London” (n.p.); all the text says about their relationship is that “They were great friends, and every day they played together” (n.p.). What tears them apart is gentrification; Charley, the Black child, remains in Paradise Street as the houses are slowly torn down, while Charlotte, the white child, goes to “live in a flat at the very top of a brand-new building” (n.p.). The contrast in Keeping’s colour palette between the somber depiction of the slums of Paradise Street and the golden new tower block makes an unspoken commentary on race and housing in 1960s London. Charley does not see gentrification as a barrier however; he doggedly goes in search of his lost friend until he finds her.

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The children in Breinburg and Lloyd’s Sean Goes to School do not simply “tolerate” Sean, but actively seek him out as a friend.

Petronella Breinburg’s 1973’s Sean Goes to School, with illustrations from Errol Lloyd, is one of the earliest picture books from a mainstream publisher (the Bodley Head) to feature a Black child on the cover. Given the publication date which came not too long after Bernard Coard’s How the West Indian is made Educationally Sub-Normal in the British School System (1971), this could have been a demand from two Black British authors for “tolerance” in the education system. But in fact, it is simply the story of a child’s first day of school. Sean is frightened, and cries, but he is not labeled by the teacher as bad (or educationally sub-normal). He is not depicted as a suspicious character by the white children in the room. In fact he is welcomed like all the other children in the class, and treated with kindness without patronization. And because he is understood and accepted, he joins in the classroom activities and enjoys himself. Children’s literature in this period does not demand tolerance, but acceptance.

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When Azzi in Garland’s Azzi in Between realizes that she has not only been accepted but understood . . .

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. . . Azzi makes an effort to understand and accept someone else. This understanding and acceptance, rather than tolerance, empowers all people.

The report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission does not, of course focus on the 1960s, but only uses it to contrast with the contemporary moment. It reports that little has changed for the Afro-Caribbean Britain, and that since Brexit, things have worsened for many other groups as well. So the last book I would point to is Sarah Garland’s Azzi in Between (2012). This books look at Azzi, a young war refugee, as she enters Britain with her family. Like the immigrants of the 1960s, Azzi and her family have concerns about equitable treatment in their new home. But unlike the 1960s, Azzi and refugees like her have a greater fear that any rights they might have will be taken away. This fear is expressed in Azzi in Between, but Azzi herself is more concerned with being understood and accepted. When she meets people who help her, she in turn becomes helpful. When she is accepted, she becomes accepting. It is a lesson worth considering as Britain faces the challenge of a divided society. Tolerance does not heal. Acceptance does.

In the same Radio 4 report, Birmingham community activist Desmond Jaddoo commented that, “racial relations has never really been tackled properly on a no-tolerance basis”. Maybe we should stop thinking about tolerance of people who look or act differently from us, and start thinking about acting with “no tolerance” for racism instead.

Slavery in Black and White (Puffins, that is)

While I was researching at Seven Stories this past year, I started doing an inventory for them of books in their collection that had non-white authors and characters. They have a generous amount, so I didn’t finish the list, but I did get through a collection of Puffins while I was there. Puffins, the juvenile imprint of Penguin, had their heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, when books were cheap and middle class aspirations were high. Puffin even ran a club, with magazines (including games, book excerpts, and advertisements for new Puffin titles) and outings to places like the Whipsnade Zoo. The magazine is revealing, because it includes photographs of young Puffin Club members at author events and outings. Despite paging through a couple of decades of the Puffin Post, I did not find a single non-white face in the club member pages.

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The Puffin Post contained stories, games advertisements for new Puffins and puzzles–and photos of its members.

This does not necessarily suggest there were no Black or Asian Puffin Club members, but it does indicate that the audience for the Puffin Club and Puffin books was largely white (and, in order to be able to afford outings and yet also find them novel and exciting, probably middle-class white in the main). But the books that Puffin published were not exclusively about white Britons during this time period. Most famously, perhaps, Puffin did the paperback edition of Bernard Ashley’s The Trouble with Donovan Croft in 1977 (and then in several reprints with different covers). This is a book focalized through the white character about his mute Black foster brother, Donovan Croft. Puffin also published other contemporary stories with Black British characters, including Geoffrey Kilner’s Jet: A Gift to the Family (1979), also (like Donovan Croft) by a white author; and reprints of books by West Indian authors Andrew Salkey and James Berry—although these were set in Jamaica.

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The 1977 Puffin cover of Andrew Salkey’s Hurricane, from artist Julek Heller, contains nothing to indicate its Jamaican setting.

Historically, however, Black people only existed during one period of time in Puffins during the 1960s and 1970s: slavery, and curiously, most of their depictions of slavery were set in America rather than the British colonies. Or perhaps it is not so curious. British history books, as I’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog, tended (indeed, until very recently) to gloss over the British participation in slavery and the slave trade, blaming the Spanish for the plantation slavery system before quickly moving on to extol the work of British campaigners in abolishing the slave trade in 1807 without ever mentioning the British embrace of slavery in between. After abolition in the British colonies, many writers and campaigners moved on to protesting American slavery, and as this campaign coincided with the rise in both Empire and children’s literature during the Victorian period, the idea became cemented, sometimes unintentionally, in textbooks that the British had always been against slavery everywhere.

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Puffin’s cover for Sophia Scrooby Preserved, illustrated by David Omar White.

Certainly one of the Puffins that I first encountered at Seven Stories embraces this line of reasoning. Martha Bacon’s Sophia Scrooby Preserved was first published by Puffin in 1973, but like most Puffins it had been published previously in hardback. In Bacon’s case, her book had not only been published by the left-leaning Victor Gollancz in Britain in 1971, but also by Little, Brown and Company in 1968—because Martha Bacon was American. Bacon was the daughter of a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and the wife of an historian, so her credentials as an author of historical fiction are validated by association. Sophia Scrooby Preserved, however, did not make a particular splash in America and I, who read prodigiously as a child in the 1970s, had never seen the book before. There were multiple copies of Scrooby at Seven Stories, however, all of them in Puffins. The Puffin Club sent books and book advertisements out to its members, so the books they chose to publish often had a longer life than they did in other editions.

And there were reasons for Puffin to choose Scrooby. First, it has an element of adventure, since the book starts with the main character—who would eventually be renamed Sophia Scrooby—in her African village, which is burned to the ground by another African tribe. The girl escapes and lives with impala for a while before “accidentally” becoming enslaved when looking for food. She is taken to colonial America, just before the Revolution, and lives with a family of royalists who treat her like family and teach her Latin and to sing operatic arias. Unfortunately, they “accidentally” forget to free her, so that when they are driven out of their home by creditors, Sophia has to be left behind with the goods to be sold. After a number of adventures, during which she preserves her French lace dress and the necklace she wears, and is never once beaten or struck, she ends up escaping once again (this time from a “West Indian voodoo queen” in New Orleans) and goes to Britain. Upon setting foot on English soil, she is treated like royalty and goes to live with a rich old lady as her companion. In London she meets no less than Ignatius Sancho, the composer and anti-slavery companion. Sancho discovers she is from London and complains, “I cannot countenance rebellion. Better to make peace and pay her taxes and free her slaves” (206). This is some forty years before Britain “frees her slaves”, but as with the bad Victorian history textbooks, Bacon’s text assumes that because Britain has passed the Somerset Ruling, all of Britain’s slaves are now free.

Bacon’s book was one that worked for Puffin, because it contained all the elements of an exciting adventure story, as well as being on “the side of the angels” politically at a time when a growing population of Black British students were being told that West Indian students couldn’t learn in the British school system or integrate into British society. Sophia Scrooby Preserved presents a picture of a well-dressed, well-spoken, independent African girl in London who can earn her own living and move in society’s circles. Sadly, what Sophia Scrooby preserves is the idea that the white British were innocent of the brutality of slavery.

 

You Don’t Have to Live Like a Refugee: The Olympics, Migrants, and Black Britain

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The book is available from the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Trust.

The Rio Olympics has its opening ceremony on Friday, and for the first time ever there will be a team competing under the Olympic, rather than their national, flag (see http://www.mirror.co.uk/sport/refugee-survivors-team-no-home-8548134 for a complete list of the Olympians on the team). Ten athletes—five from South Sudan, two from Syria, two from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and one from Ethiopia—will be competing for Olympic gold, but not for their countries of birth or their current countries of residence. The Olympic refugee team provides a counter-image to the pictures of tent cities and migrants drowned in dangerous crossings or suffocated in the backs of lorries trying to reach safe havens in Europe. Being a refugee from conflict or an economic migrant is generally seen as a negative thing, even for children. The recent Brexit vote resulted in part from a fear of too much immigration, legal or not. Only yesterday, Yvette Cooper criticized the UK’s prime minister, Theresa May, for failing to let in more than 20 child migrants to the UK despite the absence of legal barriers (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/03/child-refugees-theresa-may-yvette-cooper).

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Adepitan’s family came to ensure he had the medical resources to deal with his disability.

And yet, Britain has a long history of accepting migrants (whether refugees or not) who have turned out to be contributing members of society. In fact, three earlier migrants to Britain became among the many Black British Olympians, winning medals for their adopted country. Ade Adepitan, a migrant from Nigeria whose parents thought he would get better health care in Britain after polio left him partially paralyzed, went on to win a bronze medal in the 2004 Athens Paralympic games. Mo Farah, who left war-torn Somalia at the age of eight and came to London, went from knowing three English phrases to becoming one of Britain’s greatest distance runner and Olympic gold medalist. Tessa Sanderson was the first Black British woman to win Olympic gold. She and her family were part of the Windrush generation, coming to Britain from Jamaica in the early 1960s.

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Farah escaped war-torn Somalia.

 

These Olympians—and many others—are profiled in Britain’s Black Olympians (Eds. Jackie Ould-Okojie and Emma Britain, 2012), a book which was published by the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust in Manchester in time to celebrate the London 2012 Olympic games. The trust was set up in memory of Ahmed Iqbal Ullah, a thirteen-year-old boy from Manchester murdered in the playground of his school by a fellow pupil in 1986. Ullah, whose family was Bangladeshi, frequently stood up to bullies who shouted racial slurs, particularly at members of the British Asian community. The Trust set up in his name publishes literature written by schoolchildren of all backgrounds in the Manchester area, including refugees.

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Sanderson’s family were economic migrants.

The primary school-age child authors of Britain’s Black Olympians did not write extensive biographies—most are only a few hundred words—but one of the key features for these kids to write about was the background of the Olympians. Adepitan’s family “bravely” (1) moved to London because of his disability; Farah left “because of the civil war in Somalia” (9); Sanderson’s father, who preceded the rest of his family to England, came “to find work” (55). At the time these athletes arrived, and when many of the children who wrote the biographies came with their families, Britain was seen as a safer place with more employment and services for people from countries disadvantaged by conflict or economics. Will the current generation of economic migrants and refugees from conflicts see the UK in the same way, especially given the post-Brexit increase in racist incidents (see the Runnymede Trust’s website for more on post-Brexit racism)?

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Collins has published other Black British biographies as well.

Britain’s Black Olympians was one of the first (if not THE first) to profile Adepitan, Farah, and Sanderson (as well as many others). Since then, there have been a couple of other books for children that focus on these athletes. Collins Big Cat levelled reading series, which has previously committed to other biographies of Black Britons including Walter Tull and Mary Seacole, in 2013 published an autobiography by Adepitan, Ade Adepitan: A Paralympian’s Story. And just last week—in time for the Rio Olympics—Hodder published Ready, Steady, Mo!, co-written by Mo Farah and Kes Gray. Ready, Steady, Mo! is not a biography, but a rhyming text designed to encourage kids to run everywhere. In both cases, these books were written (at least in part) BY the athletes themselves. I’m glad that they were published, but it is somewhat disappointing to think that although kids are clearly, given Britain’s Black Olympians, interested in these athletes, nonfiction authors and (especially mainstream) publishers have by and large given them a miss. At least Adepitan and Farah have books by or about them in print for children; Britain’s first Black woman Olympian, Tessa Sanderson, is nowhere to be found in stand-alone biographies for children.

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The Olympic Games are a time to celebrate athletes who compete for love of sport and pride in origins. Many participants struggle against great odds to get to the Games, and this is even more true this year with the first ever Refugee Team. As you watch, remember the histories of athletes like Adepitan, Farah and Sanderson, and think about the future of the Refugee Athletes. Hopefully, in years to come, there will be children’s books to tell their stories as well.

Wheatle's writing for young adults has commonalities with the books of Walter Dean Myers.

Guardian’s Galaxy: The Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and Black Britain

On July 8, the Guardian released its 2016 longlist for its children’s fiction prize (https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/gallery/2016/jul/08/guardian-childrens-fiction-prize-2016-longlist). The list of previous award winners of the prize, given since 1967, reads like a who’s who of great contemporary children’s authors: Joan Aiken, Alan Garner, Peter Dickinson, Diana Wynne Jones and Jacqueline Wilson, among others, have won the prize. Some of the best-known British children’s fiction of the last half-century, including Dick King-Smith’s The Sheep-Pig (later made into the movie “Babe”) and Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mister Tom were recognized for their merits by the Guardian judges.

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David Almond, author of A Song for Ella Grey, was last year’s winner of the Guardian children’s book prize-and one of this year’s judges.

This year’s longlist contains three titles that feature Black British characters or authors: former children’s laureate Malorie Blackman’s Chasing the Stars (which *might* feature Black British characters, but as the book is set in space at a far future time, distinctions between humans based on nationalities are meaningless; however, Blackman is perhaps the most-recognized Black British writer for children); Carnegie-winner Tanya Landman’s Hell and High Water, and One of the most exciting writers of the black urban experience’ (according to the Times) Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights. Before I talk about the books, I want to discuss the prize itself.

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Thomas’s The Runaways won the Guardian prize in 1988, and had a Black Briton as a major character. (Cover art unattributed on my copy.)

 

For those unfamiliar with the Guardian prize, it is—unlike Britain’s Carnegie and Greenaway medals, which are awarded by librarians—judged by children’s authors (this year’s judges are David Almond, Kate Saunders, and SF Said). I was able to see something of how the Carnegie judging worked during my year in Newcastle, and the librarians on the judging committee are not given any support (financial or time) to read the hundreds of books that might be nominated. This means that many librarians (particularly those with families or other commitments) cannot participate in the process. Those that do participate also, inevitably, have their own specific population of readers in mind. The fact that the Guardian prize has a panel of authors who generally spend at least part of their year doing author visits throughout the country (and beyond, for that matter) suggests that the judges might have a broader spectrum of the British population in mind as they read through the longlist.

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Landman’s Guardian prize nominee is about Britain’s past, not America’s.

The Guardian prize has been historically much more likely than either the Greenaway or, especially, the Carnegie to choose texts that reflect the diversity of Britain in its winners. It is, for example, significant that of the three authors on the Guardian longlist that I mentioned here, only Landman has won the Carnegie—and she’s done it for a book (Buffalo Soldier) that is set, not in Britain but in the USA. (Blackman has been shortlisted, but hasn’t won.) As early as 1988, however, the Guardian prize had been awarded to a book with a major character who is Black British—Ruth Thomas’s The Runaways. Before this, the Guardian prize had been awarded to non-white authors, including Anita Desai whose Village by the Sea won in 1983.

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Blackman’s Chasing the Stars, like her earlier Pig-Heart Boy, uses technology to question what makes someone human.

 

The current Guardian longlist continues that tradition of committing to a broad range of texts, but not just in terms of authors or main characters and their skin colour. The three books I mentioned above may have the thread of “Black British” running through them one way or another, but they are themselves very diverse texts. Blackman’s story, as I’ve already mentioned, is set in space and has echoes of Othello (not to mention a pinch of Romeo and Juliet) about it. It is the kind of book that is not written enough for and about Black Britons: science fiction complete with technological jargon and plot twists. Set in the future, it asks readers to think about the things about humanity that might change (as in, how much our humanity can be dependent on technology for example) and the things about humanity that never change (the frustrations of teenage love affairs, for example). Landman’s Hell and High Water, like Buffalo Soldier, is set in the historical past, but in this book it is Britain’s, not America’s, history. And unlike Buffalo Solider, which focuses on one of the few time periods when African-Americans are allowed to exist in children’s books (the post-civil war is not as popular in children’s books as the period of slavery or civil rights, but it is not like World War I when apparently few Black people existed in America if one were to judge by children’s books), Hell and High Water is about a free Black Briton in mid-1700s England. The book speaks not only to racial issues, but to class issues as well, since Caleb and his (white) relatives have to struggle with the unequal justice meted out to poor people during the time period (potentially leading the reader to question the equality of justice in modern Britain as well). Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights is set in contemporary urban Britain, and uses slang-filled dialogue and situations which might appeal to readers turned off by more “literary”-appearing books. But being a book about urban kids involved with crime and gangs does not make it unliterary, just as these qualities did not make the books of African-American author Walter Dean Myers, such as the 1990 Scorpions, unliterary. In fact, it has features of both the other longlisted books featuring Black characters. Wheatle’s story, like Landman’s, raises issues of equality of justice as well as the equality of opportunity for Black Britons. It considers both personal responsibility for actions taken and the meaning and value of loyalty, which are features of Blackman’s novel as well.

 

Even if the shortlist (which is to appear in October) includes none of these books, there’s still a good chance that it will feature at least one book that focuses on non-majority characters; Australian author Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow is about a Rohingya asylum-seeker in a detention camp in Australia. But no matter what happens, it is significant (and I think probably historic) that the Guardian prize’s longlist includes books that feature the past, present and possible future of Black Britons from three high-quality authors. Kudos to the Guardian prize for including these books in their galaxy of potential prize-winners; I’ve got my fingers crossed that the shortlist, as well as other prize and readers’ lists, will include them as well.

Fit for a King: Traditional tales and Revision

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The Oxford Reading Tree version of the Dominican tale, “The King who wanted to Touch the Moon.”

Since the referendum on Brexit, many of the British political parties have been in turmoil; I was camping along Hadrian’s Wall for a few days this week and came back to find that the UK had a new prime minister. The Labour party is also mulling over changes: should Jeremy Corbyn remain the head of the party? The thing that struck me most about all of the changes and potential changes is that they largely are being discussed at the top. Whereas Brexit was a straight majority-rules vote about remaining in the European Union, Theresa May became prime minister without an election, and the Labour Party is arguing over whether the “three pound” Labour Party members (who joined during the last Labour leadership campaign, and mostly supported Corbyn) should be allowed to have a say in the next leadership vote. This all, of course, complies with British political party policy—but many ordinary British voters might well begin to suspect that the leaders of the major parties do not really want to know what they think.

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Many voted for Brexit because they said they didn’t like the “elites” telling them what to do.

The upheaval in Britain made me think of a story that will be familiar to many Americans, at least those born in my era, Dr. Seuss’s Yertle the Turtle (1958). The story concerns a turtle king who wants to have complete power over all that he sees; once he does, he climbs higher to find more to conquer. Seuss has King Yertle climb on the backs of his citizen turtles to get higher; the lowest on the stack, a turtle named Mack, constantly complains but Yertle ignores him. The story comes to a climax when Yertle wants to be ruler of the moon and Mack, in protest, burps, bringing down the turtle stack and dumping Yertle in the pond.

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Dr. Seuss’s Yertle the Turtle has Yertle governing without regard to his people’s needs.

Somewhere along the line—I can’t remember when, but we came from a household where political messages in texts would have been suggested to us—I learned that this story was written with Adolf Hitler’s then-recent attempts to conquer Europe (and beyond) in mind. This is one of the now-accepted interpretations of the book: the author of the blog, The Children’s War, for example, writes, “Now, I am sure you can see the resemblance to Hitler and his quest for more and more Lebensraum in Yertle.  And it isn’t hard to figure out that the turtles are the German people under Hitler’s dictatorship” (https://thechildrenswar.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/yertle-turtle-by-dr-seuss.html). Seuss was certainly political; there’s even an American public television programme, Indpendent Lens, which has done an entire episode about “The Political Dr. Seuss” (http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/politicaldrseuss/); the web page about this episode also mention the link between Hitler and Yertle the Turtle.

But Seuss’s story—though certainly originally presented—is not an original story. I recently came across a Dominican folk tale strikingly similar to Seuss’s story. Like Seuss’s story, it is set on an island. The island is ruled by a king, who has a wish for power, and makes his people serve his every desire. The Dominican story is entitled “The King Who Wanted to Touch the Moon.” In the Dominican story, the king gets his carpenter to tell him how to build a tall tower to touch the moon. Even though the carpenter knows that it is not possible to touch the moon, he and the villagers obey the king’s wishes and stack up all the chests and boxes in the kingdom. When it still does not reach the moon, the king insists that the people send up the bottom chest. They take it out, and the tower—and the king—fall down.

Seuss’s story and the Dominican folktale are similar in most ways. The differences are significant as well, however. In the Dominican story, people are the main characters. Even though readers/listeners would know that it is a folktale setting—the Dominican Republic was never ruled by a king, unless you go back to its Spanish colonial days—the use of humans connects the story directly to the readers. This is particularly important when versions of the story are published outside of the Dominican Republic. Oxford Reading Tree, for example, published a very simple version of the story entitled The King and His Wish (2011), authored and illustrated by Alison Hawes and Kate Slater. Although only the teacher notes indicate the story’s origins, the pictures of people of various shades who can see the foolishness of the king serve to underline the idea that wisdom (and foolishness, for that matter) is not just the purview of white, western people. Given the white, western publishing world’s tendency to place non-white people only in supporting roles, the message in The King and His Wish is not insignificant.

 

Another difference between the Dominican tale and Dr. Seuss is the ending. Seuss has Yertle become “King of the mud” while the other turtles become a free people. The Dominican tale, on the other hand, ends with a humble king who is better able to rule and will take the advice of his people. The distinction between a specifically (white) American individualism and the more communitarian approach of the Dominican tale reflect different approaches to government. Interestingly, the Oxford Reading Tree version has an open ending, with the king on the ground and the people standing round him with varying attitudes toward his demise. It would be interesting to hear kids from different countries and/or backgrounds discussing what happened next in the story.

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The Oxford version has an open ending; these are the last pages of the text.

 

Kings—and governments—fall when they don’t listen to their people. This is a lesson that both Yertle the Turtle and “The King Who Wanted to Touch the Moon” teach, and a pertinent one for our times. But the folktale version also reminds readers that the community has a role to play, not just in deposing government, but in making it better. And this too is a lesson fit for our times.

Shaping the Truth of What they Read about Race

“Young children do not readily question the truth of what they read and they are unlikely to be able to identify racial bias” (Anthony Page and Ken Thomas, Multicultural Education and the All-White School: 30).

While working on my current book project, I came across the quotation above, published in 1984. The authors were discussing how schools could become more “multicultural” in their curriculum, and they were arguing in favor of “removing” racially offensive books, such as Hugh Lofting’s Dr Dolittle series, from the classroom because primary-school children would be likely to accept racial stereotypes blindly. I found this idea depressing on two levels: one, the encouragement of censorship (especially as a means to improving racial relations!); and two, the assumption of an absence of critical thinking on the part of the very young.

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Young children, according to some critics, accept that this brown doll is “black as ink”. From Dean’s Gold Medal Alphabet and Counting Book

I know for a fact, however, that such an assumption is unfounded. Critical thinking in the young is not absent, and an awareness of ‘race’ as a way of othering is also present from an early age. My daughter asked if she was Black at the age of two, having been labelled thus by her nursery school classmate. When she was eight, I read her Oliver Twist; she asked why Dickens repeatedly referred to Fagin as “the Jew”. Children question the idea of otherness all the time; the answers they receive to their questions dictate whether they will be likely (rather than able) to “identify racial bias” to a teacher or other authoritarian figure.

Of course, Page and Thomas were particularly focused on the all-white school, and their thesis was that students who only saw white children in leadership roles or non-white people in stereotypical ones would be unlikely to dispute this. This is not, however, the fault of the students (as Page and Thomas would have it); instead, it is the result of a pervasive societal emphasis on the value of whiteness. As Darren Chetty has effectively argued (http://www.periodicos.proped.pro.br/index.php/childhood/article/view/1653/1246), the normalcy of whiteness closes off discussions of race and racism. However, it is possible to open up these discussions, depending on the literature a child is presented with—and the other people they have to talk about it with.

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What did this picture mean to viewers in 1947? To the editors, it showed an object, beginning with N.

Two examples from my research at Seven Stories this year come to mind. One is a book that Page and Thomas might well consign to the censored book heap, W. Suschitzky’s Open-Air ABC (Collins, 1947). The book, like many alphabet books, has a picture next to the letter of the alphabet and a word that starts with that letter. In this case, each picture is a photograph, taken by Suschitzky, of outdoor scenes in Britain. While many alphabet books from this time had pictures of (G is for) Golliwogs (hideous or comic dolls supposedly representing Black people), or (I is for) Indians (usually white children dressed up in headdresses and buckskins), Suschitzky’s book takes an unusual step in presenting the letter N. Here is a full-color photograph of a well-dressed, beautiful child with a book, looking patiently at the camera. This is not the common image of people of African descent in 1940s children’s literature. So in that sense, the photographer was doing something quite radical. However, at the same time, the publisher describes the book as presenting “all sorts of objects the child is familiar with” (jacket flap). A “Negro,” however beautiful and beautifully photographed, becomes an object for (presumed white) children to look at by virtue of the book’s paratextual information. In this way, the “normal” (defined by the publisher’s blurb as the white, English) reader is closed off from thinking of the radical possibilities of Suschitzky’s photograph. But children can and should be taught to read and understand this information to see how publishers and editors shape readers’ understanding of whiteness as normal.

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From Over the Hills and Far Away, four similar rhymes from around the world. Why do children know Miss Muffet best?

 

Another example can be found in the beautiful book and Seven Stories exhibit (on until February 2017) about nursery rhymes. The exhibit is titled Rhyme Around the World—and it is a delight—and the book that the exhibit is based on is entitled Over the Hills and Far Away: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes from Around the World, edited by co-founder of Seven Stories, Elizabeth Hammill (Frances Lincoln, 2014). The book compares what might be considered “traditional” English nursery rhymes with similar rhymes from around the world. The page of rhymes that begins with “Little Miss Muffett” has four versions (illustrators Clara Vulliamy, Jenny Bent, Amy Schwartz and Bruce Whatley), each given equal space, but the Jamaican “Miss Julie” is the most prominent child figure on the page, in her red dress and with her powerful stance. Although the other rhymes are, like the Jamaican version, in different forms of English (Australian and American), the Jamaican one is the most different-seeming (because it is in patois). Hammill’s collection and exhibition aim to give value and introduce readers to other cultures; in this case, the English rhyme dominates (it is certainly more common to Americans, for example, than the given American version, “Little Miss Tuckett”) and a sensitive interlocutor might lead a discussion as to why this is so (especially since most children have no idea what tuffets or curds and whey are anymore). Not all the pages are comparisons; some have just English rhymes and some have just rhymes from a particular country or region. The set-up of this page might suggest the “normalcy” of English/British versions of the nursery rhymes, but it doesn’t close off discussion by providing only that version.

 

Both of these books have, I would argue, anti-racist intentions (at least at some level). However, closely examining these books (and others that you can probably think of yourself) with children (or children’s literature students) could potentially lead to difficult discussions about how certain discourses/images/ideas come to dominate the literature that the majority of children (white or not) see in their day-to-day lives. But discussions of racism and whiteness are not comfortable, and a racially hierarchical world has never been a safe space for non-white people. If we as adults direct discussions in ways that protect the “safe space” feelings of white people (including, sometimes, the white people leading those discussions!), we accept that whiteness is a privileged space in need of protection. We allow racism to continue, and keep our children from seeing the truth about racism in children’s literature.